From the Bridge: Captains Talk About Refit Challenges

Mar 24, 2022 by Triton Staff

EDITOR’S NOTE: In order to encourage candid discussion, Triton’s policy is to not identify participating captains or their comments.

Triton met with six captains via Zoom recently for a From the Bridge roundtable to talk about refit challenges, from current COVID-related fallout to the usual, ongoing headaches that a typical yard period entails. Here’s what they had to say, in Q&A format:

What’s been different in the past two years? Are there post-pandemic issues that are making refits especially challenging now?

“I just finished a 10-month refit on a 150, and right now I’m outfitting a smaller one for a new purchase. The problems that I’m seeing are obviously supply chain issues —  and that’s across the board. And it seems to be widespread, and I think that everybody’s sick of it, that the time has passed now, and why do we not have this stuff? And then when I talk to subcontractors, some of them are saying that they’re busy, but they can’t do the jobs because they can’t get employees.”

“I’ve heard a lot of people talk about the supply chain issue and I think that’s probably been the biggest drawback in the last couple years. I was in a shipyard in Greece a month ago, and they didn’t seem to have as many problems as the U.S. getting stuff in, but then, we weren’t doing big work.”

“The problems that I’m seeing are obviously supply chain issues —  and that’s across the board. And it seems to be widespread, and I think that everybody’s sick of it, that the time has passed now, and why do we not have this stuff?.”

“I was in Athens 3 or 4 months ago, and everything there was as normal. It does not seem to be an issue in southeast Asia — I’m involved in a new build there right now and there seems to be, at least at this stage, very little impact on supply issues.”

“In Lisbon, we almost had a supply chain issue. We thought we needed new ion lithium batteries, and it turned out we didn’t, but it would have taken 6 months to get them because of the supply chain problems coming from China.”

“Here in Antigua, there’s so much work needed by so many boats, that a lot of these contractors will say, “Well, I can fit you in after May,” or something like that.  There’s not enough contractors here to do all the work. You have to be the squeaky wheel and send them a WhatsApp message every day, or call them on the phone and make sure they’re coming when they say they’re coming.”

“One thing I’m noticing, and this is infuriating: I’m waiting for a simple electrical part now that you could normally just go and buy. People on their websites are advertising that it’s in stock — and this has happened twice now — so we paid the money to purchase this part and have it delivered, then three days or four days later, there will be an email stating: “We don’t have it in stock, but we can get it for you in six or seven weeks .”  How many times do you get to tell an owner, “Hey, we’ve tried this twice, and twice they’ve said oh, no, we actually don’t have it in stock.” It’s really annoying.”

“I was surprised at how many boats are in the U.S. at the moment. It was just so full in Fort Lauderdale. … I thought it can’t be that bad, but when we got here, it was really that bad. There are so many boats here, it’s insane.”

“One of the things that always comes up is valves. You know you’re going to replace them a lot so you start adding up a list and sending that in early, and still, they were coming from Italy and different places and got delayed by a month. It held up the boat getting launched and getting the out-of-water work done to get the valves back in. We also had to get a new stabilizer fin, and it actually was easier to have a guy build it — better and stronger and probably a little cheaper — right in town.”

“I’ve been lucky. With this particular boat I’m fitting out now, we managed to find the only crane, the only davit, that was available in the U.S. and Canada for the requirements that we needed. Nothing major — normally I could go buy it off the shelf and they’d have it to me in four or five weeks. Before the boat arrived we had to commit to this crane, otherwise the next one was 9 months away.”

“I have a friend who’s in the same situation. They have a hybrid crane, which they don’t like at all, and they want to change it out. They were prepared to spend 50 grand to do it, but they can’t get a new one. They had no other option but to instead spend the money to repair what they do not like and do not want. So they spent 18 grand to repair a piece of crap, when they wanted to spend 50 grand to get a new one.  Where is the win in that situation? I can’t see it.”

“I understand economics and supply chain issues, etc., but now they are price gouging for the same product, which has now taken me longer to get, causing problems in the relationship between a vendor and the captain, who is then having to turn around to the owner and say, “Look, I cannot get this,” which then potentially leads to the owner going, “Well, my captain’s bloody useless.” So there’s a whole trickle-down effect here.”

“People here have had it so good, for so long. Because there’s more and more boats, and they’re just getting bigger and bigger, with more systems. You are almost guaranteed not to fail as long as you don’t majorly screw up. And because of that, they’ve gotten super complacent. I’ve got a guy right now who has a boat in Grenada, and we are considering whether or not we should do some of the work here, or take it further south. Because the labor is so much cheaper, the quality is as good, and I can get it done in half the time.”

“In every situation there’s always a winner and a loser, right? So now, if you look at Fort Lauderdale, for example, depending on what you’re trying to get done, you literally may be S.O.L. You try to get dockage here right now — you can’t. Everything on the ICW is absolutely full. Shipyards are loaded because people cannot get what they need to get the hell out and [back to] using the boat. Not in all cases, but in a lot of cases. So it’s a really stagnant environment right now.”

“All we’re trying to do, at the end of the day, is maintain these boats to the standard which they require, and go out and use them for the owners, who make this industry work.”

“Finding space is a problem. You’ve got a lot of boats that got laid up, or the owners aren’t using them because of COVID regulations, or they couldn’t get parts. So everyone wants a berth all of a sudden and all these places are booked up.”

“I was surprised at how many boats are in the U.S. at the moment. It was just so full in Fort Lauderdale. Usually you can come here, and make a last-minute call or find a dock that’s just big enough for the night and sort it out in the morning. But when we were trying to shop around this time, there was literally nothing available. We eventually found one dock. I thought it can’t be that bad, but when we got here, it was really that bad. There are so many boats here, it’s insane.”

“All we’re trying to do, at the end of the day, is maintain these boats to the standard which they require, and go out and use them for the owners, who make this industry work. We’re not out to rip anybody off, we’re not out to cut corners — we just want to maintain the boats, or improve where necessary. And it’s not just us wanting to do it, it’s other things like flag state, classification — you know, there are certain things that have to be done, or the boat cannot move.”

Are you having to put work off because of these current problems?

“It’s not putting work off, but you wait and are delayed getting back in the water. And that’s expensive — it’s more expensive to be on the hard than in the water.”

“I’ve got to understand and order in advance what I think I’m going to need. There’s a margin for error in over-expenditure or under-expenditure, and there’s a margin also that even when you get there, they said stuff was there and it’s not. So you’re having to think a lot further ahead, and you may not be able to get it done. I think, to some degree, people are getting by with what they can do now, and looking at it again later on.”

Of course, refits have always been problematic, even before the pandemic complicated things. What are some of the typical challenges you face?

“A yard might give a general costing of works to be done, but sometimes it is the small ancillary tasks that catch the unwary. You may put the boat up on the hard before you realize that getting access stairs, pressure washing, hooking up to shore services and getting protective coverings on work areas is a lot extra. Yards love extras and change orders, and by the time they are estimated, quoted and approved, they can already be an excuse or reason to delay completion time and add significantly to the final cost.”

“Contractors sometimes come on with the mentality of “oh well, we can drop this or scratch that and nobody cares” or “they’ll get somebody to fix it, it’s their  problem.” They’re here just to fix that one job, whatever it is. I constantly have to be on their back. “Hey guys, if you work on board, be careful. Don’t scratch that. Consider the work that has to get done after you’re finished.” Keeping an eye on them is a very big thing, and it’s so difficult when you’ve got so many people on board.”

“One of the things that I find is that if you’re in a full-service yard, there’ll be a lot of subcontractors and they’re all coming to your boat in the beginning, and then all of a sudden, the next thing you know, they’re not showing up. That’s the kind of thing you have to keep an eye on — where are they going and why aren’t they at your boat? So you have to hunt these guys down a lot. They don’t want to turn work down, so they’re trying to keep the new guys hanging in there while they’re trying to finish you up, and then they go back and forth. That’s where a lot of delays come from.”

“The most important thing is that you pay your bills on time , and you make sure you pay for the work that’s been done. … These guys that try to cut the bill down after it’s all done just to get a better deal really screw the industry up , I think.”

“The owner on this boat doesn’t mind spending the money, but he does like to have a good idea of what he’s going in for. So when we start the yard period, he wants to know, OK, we’re looking at between X and Y for this yard period. The problem is, even though you’re trying to get estimates, people want to see the work, and then only do they do the estimates, which take forever, and then only do they order the parts that are necessary. It’s really difficult to get that pre-planning done before you get to the yard. Despite my best efforts now, being in contact with all the people that have done the same work five years prior, it was still really difficult. They still wanted to see the boat first, so we’re still waiting for parts.”

“I think regardless of the pandemic, the pre-planning is imperative. Especially if you’re in a rush and you’re going places after. You have to have stuff worked out and you have to have parts ordered before you get there, if at all possible. And sometimes you need someone on the ground doing that. If you’ve got a management company they can help out with that, or you can even employ someone to do that. A lot of it’s done on board just using Excel spreadsheets. You take photos of everything that needs repaired, and part numbers and everything, and you get that to the project manager or whoever you’re going to work with ashore as early as possible so they can have everything there. So when you pull up, you’re not sitting there weeks and weeks just getting quotes done. Cause quotes and estimates take a long time to do.”

“I think one really important thing that a lot of guys forget about is to check with the boat’s insurance company and let the insurance company know that you’re going into a shipyard, and what sort of work you’re going to be doing — especially if it’s hot work. These days, they’re up in arms if you don’t tell them that you’re getting hot work done on a boat and they find out you’ve been doing it without their knowledge. If you have a fire or something on board, they might just mute your insurance, so it ’s really important to tell them where you’re going, when you’re going, what you’ll actually be doing there — maybe even send them a work list if you’ve got a good rapport with your insurance guy.”

“If you’re in a foreign country, especially where the language isn’t your natural language, it can make it really difficult to be any sort of project manager. And I think that term gets thrown around too much — people like to call themselves “project managers” all over the map in this industry, but I’m not sure if they understand the total scope of the work involved. Like over in Greece, I’d never been to a shipyard in Greece before. I didn’t know any of the local contractors, didn’t even know the guys in the shipyard or local crew or anything. So I was incredibly gladI had someone in the shipyard who could point me in the right direction and help me out. Otherwise, I could have been shafted big time, and I wouldn’t have even known it until I was left out to dry. Here in Fort Lauderdale it’s not so bad — most of us know a lot of the contractors, and who’s who and who’s good and who’s not, so that makes it a little bit easier for us. But when you go further afield, it’s a different story.”

“I was also dealing with that situation once, not speaking Portuguese. Although everybody in the project management  end of things spoke fairly good English, we still lost a lot in translation when working with some of the trades people in trying to get the work done, and what our expectations were and what their expectations were.”

“We had a 15-year Lloyd survey on a Benetti in France and the owner wanted to put a bunch into it so it could go for sale and charter. I hired a really good project manager that was on-hands with spreadsheets and numbers, and I was making sure that everyone was doing their thing on the ground, so to speak. And that was a great combination. I thought it was going to be tough, but it worked out really well.”

Do you prefer a full-service yard or self-service yard?

“If you’ve got the budget and you’re short on time, definitely a full-service makes it a little easier on the captain and the rest of the crew, because the yard will have its own project manager. You oversee the budget and make sure the work is done, and the engineer looks after his side of things, and the interior looks after their side of things, etc., but everything falls back on the project manager and the yard. If you have any sort of little problem and you’re hustling to get out of the yard, then it’s up to the yard to spend whatever it takes and take whatever time it needs to get it rectified and get you out on time. It’s a lot more worry and a lot more work if you’re the project manager yourself. Of course, it’s going to cost you to be in a full-service yard, but if you’ve got an owner that says, “OK, we want you 3,000 miles away in six weeks time, and we want you to get all that work done in four weeks,” then you’ve just got to say, well, I need help with this, and go into a full-service yard and get it knocked out.”

“I like going to a yard where they have their guys and I can pick and choose from the team they have, and also bring in the guys I know. There’s a lot of IT guys you want to bring in, or special carpenters or touch-up guys — you know them, you have a relationship with them. I find that I like bringing in my own crew.”

Does that vary by the size of the boat?

“Yeah. If it’s a big boat — you know, if you’re 150, 180 and up — then most of the jobs are all being subbed out. You can’t manage it smaller in-house. So that’s a good point. If it’s a bigger boat, it goes more toward the subcontractor. If you’ve got a yard that has their own project management team, they’re usually taking care of coordinating all the people in that yard, so it makes it somewhat easier, because you can oversee and make sure everything’s going on while they handle all the paperwork and stuff.”

What are the challenges of bringing your own subcontractors in?

“One problem is insurance requirements, because a full-service yard has their contractors vetted and it takes a while to get another contractor vetted at a full-service yard — if they will do it. They may say, “We’re a full-service yard, we have someone who can do the job, there’s no need to bring someone in.” I had to go through three different carpenters before I finally got one, and we found a roundabout way to get him in. But they made it so hard — they wanted him to go through an OSHA program, and then insurance. So I actually got to that point where I said, “Let me do what I want to do or I’m going to move.” And I ended up moving facilities to get the contractors that I wanted, because of the relationship and the quality of work that I had with them.”

What do you think about the consolidation of Safe Harbor with Newport Shipyard now, Rybovich, LMC. You’ve got one company starting to take over all the shipyards. What’s your feeling on that?

“It’s not bad. There’s a lot of interesting ideas coming up. The in-house work hasn’t been delayed as much as I was expecting. We had somebody on board the other day saying that now, with any job that couldn’t get done on time, they could pull workers from the other yards to make sure it gets done, which is kind of nice.”

“Hopefully it will be for the good and not the bad, and the shipyards don’t try to wring us all out just because they have no competition anymore. That will be decided in the future, I guess. But there are good points, for sure: a lot of shared attributes, and they can even out the work force between different areas depending on demand.”

Do you guys have a favorite yard?

“I’m at LMC now, and for us, it’s pretty good here. I know there’s a lot of other boats out there that are used to going to Rybovich, but I suppose every place has pros and cons. There are really interesting ideas coming up here at LMC, so I think in the future it’s going to be very nice. There’s a lot of talks between LMC and Rybovich to implement the good of both yards at each place, so that’s quite interesting. The proximity to 17th Street is also very nice, and the beachfront is not far.”

“Rybovich has done well with the gym and the bar and all of that. I think any marina or shipyard that’s got something for the crew is going to be a favorite over ones that don’t have it.”

With yards being so crowded these days, do you make an extra effort to stay on their good side?

“If you go into a yard and you’re organized, and you’re not yelling and screaming at shipyard workers, and the work generally gets  done, and you pay on time, and everyone is happy, then you will have a good rapport with that yard  and they’ll certainly welcome you back. These days, because they’ve got so many boats out there looking for space, they started to vet captains and owners to make sure they pay on time, and they’ll be the first people they let in.”

“The most important thing is that you pay your bills on time , and you make sure you pay for the work that’s been done. There’s too many stories out there where people start haggling after the work’s done. There might be a problem with quality and all that, that’s fair enough, but these guys that try to cut the bill down after it’s all done just to get a better deal really screw the industry up , I think.”

How do crew handle it when you say hey, we’re going in the yard for 6 months?

“A lot of crew get depressed when you say you’re going into a shipyard or boatyard to do work, but it’s good for them sometimes because, you know, they’re doing a Monday to Friday, maybe half the weekend work, and then they’re shoreside so they get to do a whole bunch of things. They  don’t like going into the big dirty, messy dry dock areas and doing that sort of work, when the boat’s hooked up to plumbing and you’ve got to walk up 10 flights of stairs to get up to the deck. But being shoreside for an extended period of time — some crew like that.”

“They all complain that they’re not back out at sea again, but probably as soon as the boat gets back out at sea, they complain about being at sea.”

“I enjoyed yard periods because then you get a plan for two months and you get weekends. You know the boat’s not going to be used for a while and you know the schedule, so you can get away and do some other things. Also, learning — like the engineering part of things, seeing it taken apart and redone. I found that fascinating. I’ve always enjoyed yard periods.”

“I don’t know any crew members that ever complained about being in Thunderbolt, Georgia, at the old Palmer Johnson yard. I mean, everybody had a good time there when the day was done in Thunderbolt.”